John Ramsey's prime suspect
Boulder Weekly probes the complicated life of Chris Wolf
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by The Boulder Weekly staff (Editorial@boulderweekly.com)
It's hard to be Chris Wolf. Unless someone is convicted for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, Wolf may live as the man John and Patsy Ramsey would most like the public to suspect as the killer.
To date, he's the only one who's spent time behind bars in connection with the case-for one half hour after he refused to give police a handwriting sample on Jan. 30, 1997, just more than a month after JonBenet's death.
"I had been framed by police, so they could take me in and interrogate me in this murder," says Wolf, 40, a former reporter for the Colorado Daily and former editor of the Louisville Times. "They asked me for a writing sample and I said 'no, you've got to be kidding me.' I was thinking 'this isn't going to help you solve this case.' I didn't want to be involved in it in any way, so I refused."
Later, at the urging of Globe reporter Jeff Shapiro, Wolf provided police with a writing sample, hair, saliva and other physical evidence they wanted. After doing so, he was cleared by police.
"Wolf was convinced the Boulder Police Department was a 'rich man's imperialist police force,' trying to protect the Ramseys and frame him for the murder as just another measure of the 'fascist police state,'" Shapiro says. "I convinced him that in reality the police only wanted to eliminate him because they were at odds with the Ramseys and needed to prove his innocence since Ramsey defense investigators were raising the possibility of his involvement in the crime. In fact, I even offered to give my own DNA to the police if he would."
Although police cleared Wolf, the Ramseys won't give it up. On Good Morning America, Larry King Live, 20/20 and other recent TV shows, John Ramsey has spoken of Wolf as the man he was almost convinced killed JonBenet. In their book The Death of Innocence, the Ramseys ramble on about the circumstances that caused them to suspect Wolf.
Wolf has had enough. The accusations, Wolf says, have tormented his Midwestern parents, a retired couple who found out their son was a suspect while reading Newsweek in 1997.
"This has devastated them," Wolf says. "My dad called after reading about me in Newsweek and said 'we want you to know we think this is ridiculous.' But it's been very hard on them. This is not a cloud they anticipated would hang over their retirement years." Last week, Wolf hired attorney Darnay Hoffman in New York, and is planning to sue the Ramseys for libel and slander in federal court. Hoffman says he'll file the suit in Colorado, New York, or Georgia, where the Ramseys have moved.
"I will soon be filing a lawsuit seeking at least $25 million from the Ramseys," Hoffman says. "That's how much the Ramseys sought in their libel suit against the tabloids, and certainly Chris Wolf's reputation is worth at least as much as theirs."
Hoffman is the first lawyer Wolf has spoken with regarding the Ramsey case. Never, while being interrogated by police as a suspect in the Ramsey case, did he call a lawyer.
"I didn't need one," Wolf says. "I knew there was no way they had anything substantive to connect me to this murder, so I had no use for a lawyer. I've never harmed a child in any way, let alone put my hands around a little girl's throat and hit her over the head."
Wolf, who earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado in 1993, worked with children as an Outward Bound instructor for years before embarking on a journalism career. "I've worked with children, and I've never even been accused of harming a child in any way before this," he says.
Wolf insists he had never heard of John Ramsey or Access Graphics until he learned about JonBenet's murder while watching TV. Watching the news, the day after the murder, Wolf became agitated and stomped around his girlfriend's house in disbelief that a six year old could be so brutally slain.
"I was saying 'my God, look what's going on!' I was outraged by this, as a lot of people were," Wolf says.
He had no idea he'd be hauled in as a suspect one month later. "No idea. No idea at all. How could I have?" Wolf asks. "This was just something on the news that had absolutely no direct connection to my life whatsoever."
Press accounts have seriously misrepresented the circumstances surrounding Wolf's arrest in January of 1997. So does John and Patsy Ramsey's new book, which states: "Police officers had stopped Wolf at 11 am as he drove into Boulder; they discovered he was driving with a suspended license. The woman officer took him to the police station for further questioning when Wolf abruptly told her that the police would make better use of their time by chasing the killer of JonBenet Ramsey. He definitely caught everyone's attention with that remark." Not quite. His arrest and questioning came after police arranged to have Wolf's license suspended, precisely so they could haul him in for interrogation.
"The police can't just arrest you and question you in a first degree murder case without probable cause," Hoffman says. "They had nothing on Chris, so they created a situation in which they could arrest him."
The police were paying close attention to Wolf because his girlfriend at the time, Jacqueline Dilson, had contacted them shortly after the JonBenet murder to say she thought Wolf did it. Dilson owned and operated Dakota Ranch, a new-age bed and breakfast in Lyons. She shared her home with Wolf.
Wolf had left Dilson's home on Christmas night without telling her where he was going.
"I went out for a drive in the late afternoon, early evening," Wolf says. "We had partied the day before, on Christmas Eve, and I went to bed on Christmas night by 9:30. I was home all night." But Dilson, who was asleep, suspected Chris had been gone all night when she woke up early morning Dec. 26. Dilson told police she awoke at 5:30 am that day to the sound of Wolf showering in the bathroom. Later that day, when Wolf became agitated by TV reports of JonBenet's death, Dilson grew suspicious.
Once Dilson convinced police to investigate Chris, his troubles began. About three days before his arrest, Wolf was driving north on 28th Street in Boulder. A Colorado highway patrolman pulled him over.
"The officer said 'you looked like you were going to start speeding.' That's what he told me, I kid you not," Wolf says. "I sat in my car for the next 40 minutes. Then the officer told me I had an unresolved traffic ticket in Illinois from 18 years ago. He told me I would have to surrender my driver's license, so I did."
Wolf worked in Boulder, so he had no option but to drive without his license. The following Monday, Wolf followed his routine and drove into Boulder.
"Just inside the city limits a Boulder police officer was waiting to pull me over on North Broadway," Wolf says. "I was going 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, but she said she had stopped me for speeding. Then she handcuffed me and arrested me for driving without a license. It was an obvious setup."
Sitting bewildered in the police car, Wolf began thinking about events of the past few days. He'd been pulled over by a cop who said it looked as if he might speed, then had his license taken for an 18-year-old, out-of-state traffic offense. Only to find himself handcuffed in the back of a patrol car for speeding, when he knew without a doubt he'd been traveling below the speed limit.
"That's when I said 'why did you pull me over? Can't you find something better to do? You people can't even solve the Ramsey murder,'" Wolf says.
At the police station, Wolf says, he was immediately whisked into an interrogation room where Steve Thomas, the lead Ramsey case detective at the time, was waiting with another officer.
"I was clearly set up to be arrested, so they could question me about this crime," Wolf says. "It had nothing to do with a traffic offense, or the comment I made about the Ramsey case."
Wolf says police told him he would have to provide a handwriting sample if he wanted his driver's license back. His refusal landed him behind bars, and he was released a half hour later.
"The years since then have been a nightmare," Wolf says. "It has just been unbelievably stressful to be connected with this in any way."
After his interrogation, Wolf left the country to work at a newspaper in the British Virgin Islands. He was there less than two months when his application for a work visa was denied.
"It was declined because the government there found out I was a suspect in this case," Wolf says. "That's the only conclusion I can draw. There is no other reason I would have been denied."
He returned to Colorado to accept a job as editor of the Louisville Times. Although he's always gone by the name "Chris," and his byline says "Chris," Wolf's official first name is "Robert." Initial stories about his questioning in the case used the name "Robert," with no pictures, which precluded many of his friends and colleagues from making the connection.
"I remember conducting an editorial meeting at the Louisville Times, and on the counter for my entire staff to see was a front page story in the Daily Camera about a 'wide net' of suspicion in the Ramsey case," Wolf says. "Despite the headline, the entire story was about me. But it used the name 'Robert,' so nobody on the staff made the connection that the editor they were meeting with was this suspect in the Ramsey case."
Meanwhile, the Globe's Shapiro was hot on Wolf's trail, treating him as a legitimate prime suspect. He interviewed Dilson for hours, and pored over hundreds of pages of notes Wolf had taken as a reporter. He read through Wolf's diaries and travel logs, which were supplied to him by Dilson.
Shapiro went to the trouble of befriending Wolf, in an effort to extract information from him.
"I'm convinced there is no way in hell Chris Wolf committed this crime," Shapiro says. "But in investigating him, I learned that Chris Wolf is one of the unluckiest people on Earth. He has a way of being falsely connected, through strange coincidences, to two unsolved, high profile murders-JonBenet Ramsey and Susannah Chase."
Crumbs of suspicion
Some examples, regarding the Ramsey case:
-Although Wolf maintains to this day he had never heard of Access Graphics or the Ramseys prior to the murder, Shapiro's investigation suggests otherwise. In going through Wolf's notebooks, Shapiro came upon an interview Wolf conducted with a spokeswoman at Access Graphics for a story he wrote for the Boulder County Business Report. "I knew from my sources on the Ramsey side that their belief was that Wolf could have gained knowledge of the $118,000 (the ransom note demand, which matched John Ramsey's Christmas bonus) from this woman," Shapiro says, explaining that John Ramsey even speculated that Wolf may have dated the woman he interviewed for the Business Report. "But the woman denied ever knowing Wolf."
Wolf says he apparently interviewed someone at Access Graphics while Denver International Airport was under construction, for an overview story of local businesses involved with the project. However, he had no recollection of the conversation until Shapiro dug it up in his notes.
"I wrote one story once a month for the Business Report for eight years," Wolf says, explaining how he could forget one of hundreds of quick interviews. "And the allegation that I dated someone from that company is ludicrous. I have nothing in common with people like that, who work for big corporations. It just wouldn't happen. I don't run in those circles. We would have nothing in common. Nothing to talk about."
-Wolf's girlfriend had given him a pair of hiking boots prior to the murder. Lou Smit, a detective who worked for District Attorney Alex Hunter and now for the Ramsey's, said a hiking boot print in the basement is evidence of an intruder the night of the murder. But the boot print was left by a Hi-Tec brand boot, and Wolf's boots are Danners.
-Wolf's former girlfriend said she had given him a sweatshirt that had the initials "SBTC" on it, which is the organization identified as the responsible party on the JonBenet ransom note.
"She said it was from something like the Santa Barbara Tennis Club, thus SBTC," Shapiro says. "When she saw those letters in the ransom note, it added to her suspicion of Chris."
But Wolf says the shirt did not say SBTC.
"It was Santa Barbara something, but it did not end in 'TC.' I can't remember what it said, exactly, but it wasn't SBTC," Wolf says. "Unfortunately, I don't have it anymore or I'd show it to you."
He knew Susannah Chase
Shapiro had just about written Wolf off as a suspect in the Spring of 1997, after convincing him to give police a handwriting and DNA sample. By accident, he contacted a former roommate of Wolf's.
"I tried calling Wolf back at his old phone number by accident and spoke to his roommate who, to my surprise, told me that although Wolf had never spoken about JonBenet Ramsey, he had made numerous comments about a romantic interest he had developed in Susannah Chase shortly before she was murdered," Shapiro said.
Chase was a University of Colorado student murdered on a sidewalk near Liquor Mart on December 21, 1997, almost one year after JonBenet's murder. Much like the Ramsey case, her murder remains unsolved, with no suspect in custody. Like JonBenet, Chase was struck in the head with an unknown object.
"I had almost fallen off my chair by the time the roommate explained to me that Wolf had been courting Chase after meeting her at Wild Oats, where she worked as a cashier," Shapiro says. "The roommate claimed that Chase had agreed to go out with Wolf as a friend since she already had a boyfriend. Once the murder occurred, the roommate told me, Wolf expressed deep sadness and frustration over it."
The Ramsey case was stagnant at the time, so the Globe had sent Shapiro to Los Angeles to follow celebrities and invade their private lives. From LA, Shapiro called Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner and told him what he'd just learned from Wolf's old roommate.
"One hour later, Detective Kerry Yamaguchi called and told me to fly back to Boulder so he could interview me about this," Shapiro says. "Yamaguchi hinted to me only one thing: that Wolf's girlfriend who had accused him of the Ramsey murder had also accused him of the Chase murder as well. 'Do you think that Chris Wolf is capable of killing someone?' Yamaguchi asked me. 'I don't think so,' I said."
Later, in a conversation with John Ramsey, Shapiro was asked again for his assessment of Chris Wolf.
"John Ramsey told me he suspected the same person who had killed JonBenet also killed Susannah Chase," Shapiro says. "Ramsey asked me my thoughts on Wolf. 'I think his girlfriend is angry with him,' I told him, hinting of a possible motive of revenge on her part." Eventually, Shapiro says, police told him they didn't suspect Wolf in either crime. And Shapiro is convinced Wolf didn't do it, despite weird connections he calls "coincidence." He's seen far stranger connections involving other suspects, such as the man with a website on how to brutally torture Barbie dolls and make sophisticated garrotes like what was used to kill JonBenet.
Susanne and Chase
Wolf says Shapiro got it partly right, regarding his relationship with Susannah Chase.
"I knew Susannah Chase because I ate at Wild Oats almost every single day," Wolf says. "I knew all the pretty girls there. I thought she was a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent young woman. But a romantic interest? I don't know about that. I never asked her out on a date. She was 18 years younger than me, and I don't go out and try to score with women who are 18 years younger than me. I don't need notches on my holster. Been there, done that a long time ago."
Dilson, Wolf's former girlfriend, was persistent in trying to convince Shapiro that Wolf was not only responsible for the death of JonBenet, but Susannah Chase as well.
"She started to seem delusional," Shapiro says. "The things she was saying sounded crazy. None of it was credible. She said Chris had a niece and nephew, one named Susannah and the other named Chase, and that this somehow tied him to the murder of Susannah Chase. It was crazy stuff like that."
Wolf says it's not a niece and nephew. Rather, Dilson's older sister is named "Susanne," and her niece, Susanne's daughter, is "Chase."
"Jackie is not a stable person," Wolf says, explaining that his ex-girlfriend had a troubled childhood that causes her distress to this day.
Dilson no longer lives in Boulder County, having moved to Wyoming, and does not have a phone. The Dakota Ranch went bankrupt, and Dilson's attorney says the Ramsey case helped cause its demise.
"In the wake of this Ramsey case, Jackie (Dilson) couldn't concentrate on getting her business on stable footing," says attorney Phil Geil of Boulder. "I kept trying to get her to look aside from the case and let police deal with it. I encouraged her to forget about it and move on, but she was incapable."
Geil met Wolf several times after Dilson had expressed her suspicions to police. Oddly, he says, Wolf and Dilson got along marvelously.
"He was in the office a few times, and he always seemed like a perfectly normal young man to me," Geil says. "Despite what was going on, they seemed to be getting along just fine. It surprised me. I never saw anything that seemed antagonistic between them."
Wolf says he and Dilson are still friends, and he continues to feel affectionate towards her. He doesn't know how to contact Dilson, but she occasionally sends him letters from Wyoming.
A letter mailed Feb. 21 says, in part: "I believe that the love in your heart towards me is = to the love in my heart towards you." The rest of the letter talks about reuniting someday. Dilson expresses her need for isolation right now, and her anxiety about talking on the phone. A postscript to the letter changes the mood, saying:
"Chris, you said you had bought me some Vit-C for a present. I could really use it if you feel like sending it. Also, if you have any extra money?"
Although Wolf harbors no anger toward Dilson, he minces no words to express his disdain for John Ramsey, District Attorney Alex Hunter, Lou Smit, Deputy District Attorney Peter Hoffstrum and a host of others he says have conspired to protect the Ramseys against prosecution. At his expense.
"Alex Hunter is the lowest fucking scumbag on Earth," Wolf says.
Wolf says Dilson turned police onto him only because she is unstable, and was legitimately paranoid at a time when their relationship was on shaky ground. Anyone close to the case, Wolf says, knows that.
"But Alex Hunter, Lou Smit and the Ramseys have used me to establish a pretense of a credible or legitimate attempt to find JonBenet's killer," Wolf says.
Wolf's lawyer, Hoffman, is even more vociferous in his criticism of the Boulder District Attorney's office, and Boulder in general. Suspicion focused on Wolf, he says, only because Alex Hunter and friends have never had a legitimate interest in finding JonBenet's killer.
"Boulder is no different than Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side of New York," Hoffman says. "Boulder is like a Starbucks in the middle of a huge shopping mall. It's home to a bunch of pointy-headed liberals, so the value of life ranks nowhere near as high as the value of a comfortable lifestyle. The Ramsey murder is far less of a concern to the people of Boulder than to most people everywhere else.
"Barking dogs, litter and double parking are all bigger priorities in Boulder than a little girl's murder. It's a classic narcissistic environment. You wouldn't let a murder interfere with your narcissistic pursuits out there. So the Ramsey case is merely a speed bump on the highway to upward mobility in Boulder. Alex Hunter knows that, and he's acted accordingly. If he were running, he'd be soundly re-elected."
Today, Wolf works in retail and tries to avoid Ramsey discussions with colleagues and friends. But he keeps a close tab on all media coverage of the case, in an effort to track what's written and broadcast about him.
Monday, when the New York Times carried a story about the latest Ramsey book, Wolf bought a copy at Eads News & Smoke Shop. In the store, he ran into Deputy DA Hoffstrum, who was paging through Time.
"You won't find anything good about yourself in there," Wolf said. Hoffstrum looked up from the magazine, saw Wolf and laughed.
None of it makes Wolf chuckle. He avoids whining about his plight, saying he's trying to view his life in a positive light. But he wonders if the shadow of suspicion will ever fade, and if he'll ever be normal again.
"This is not a joke," Wolf says. "It's very real, it's very serious, and it is not funny."